30th anniversary concert emphasizes Dylan's power

August 24, 1993|By Michael H. Price | Michael H. Price,Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Bob Dylan came out of Nowheresville more than three decades ago, erupting with a fury that his idol, vagabond balladeer Woody Guthrie, could never have hoped to match.

Guthrie was never sufficiently ambitious to hang onto this or that career opportunity long enough to exploit it to the fullest.

But Dylan . . . His very name was a marketing ploy -- an evocation of rowdy, doomed poet Dylan Thomas, and vastly more romantic-sounding than his given name: Robert Allen Zimmerman.

Dylan meant to forge a lasting security out of his Guthrie-styled drifter's image.

The abiding success of that campaign is underscored in today's release of "Bob Dylan: The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration" on CD and video.

On Oct. 16, 1992, an all-star lineup gathered at New York City's Madison Square Garden to mark the three decades since the release of Dylan's debut album.

From Willie Nelson to Pearl Jam, The Clancy Bros. to The O'Jays, the gatherees supplied largely pleasing interpretations of 30-odd Dylan compositions.

The honoree himself showed up for a satisfying finale. A palpable camaraderie united the seemingly bizarre match of talents.

Not even Sinead O'Connor's notoriously ugly scene -- a hostile audience hooted her off the stage -- can compromise the worth of the set.

From this improved distance of several months, however, the O'Connor incident merely shows her in a fugue of artistic cowardice, whichpoints up the integrity of Dylan himself.

When Dylan broke ranks with the acoustic-only folkies in the mid-'60s, debuting an electrified set at the Newport Folk Festival, he weathered enough hissing and booing to drive a lesser artist into retreat.

But his commitment to the music saved the day, and his authenticity won over enough of the hostile audience that, since then, no one has exhibited the gall to try to categorize Bob Dylan.

Dylan proved authentic even when he doubted his own ability to claim authenticity: He would apologize for his earliest attempts to sing the blues, saying his youth and his Minnesota-born cultural isolation prevented him from carrying himself like the bluesmen who inspired him.

Perhaps Dylan's greatest continuing relevance, though, was that he -- more than any other folk singer -- proved that the advocacy of human rights could be fun.

Even the beloved sing-alongs of Pete Seeger "(We Shall Overcome)" and the angry civil-rights diatribes of Len Chandler "(To Be a Man" and "Keep On Keepin' On)" were rooted in didacticism.

But Dylan addressed the same concerns with playful near-jingles, and catchy (albeit grim) ballads.

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